Birgitta Wolf was an author, a translator, and a prison-service activist.
Birgitta Wolf was born at the Rockelstad estate in Sörmland in 1913. Her parents were Count Eric von Rosen, an ethnographer and a Nazi, and Mary von Rosen, who ran the women’s branch of the Societas Sanctæ Birgittæ (SSB). Birgitta Wolf later described her childhood as an idyllic one. She attended a girls’ school in Stockholm and undertook language studies in Switzerland. Whilst travelling by train in Europe she met a young industrialist from Germany named Albert Nestler. The couple married at Rockelstad in 1933. The wedding guests included her maternal aunt’s former husband Hermann Göring who gave the newlyweds a Mercedes as a wedding gift as well as a bouquet of roses from Adolf Hitler. The Horst Wessel song was played at the church. That same year Birgitta Wolf translated a Nazi propaganda novel about Horst Wessel, the Stormtrooper, into Swedish.
After the wedding Birgitta Wolf and her husband initially lived in his hometown of Lahr in Baden before eventually settling in Berlin, where they became neighbours of the Goebbels family, with whom Birgitta Wolf already was familiar. One of Birgitta Wolf’s children was baptised by Hermann Göring and she made several visits to his estate at Carinhall, including once as a guest during Mussolini’s 1937 state visit to Germany. She was able to, on a couple of occasions, exploit her contacts in order to help others. She apparently interceded with Reinhard Heydrich in 1936 seeking the release of a gardener who had been imprisoned for distributing socialist pamphlets. According to Birgitta Wolf’s memoires, after her actor friend Mathias Wiemann fell out of Goebbels’ favour, she came to his aid by asking Göring to speak to Hitler about it. Wiemann was removed from Goebbel’s blacklist and continued to appear in Nazi propaganda films, including a film about the German euthanasia programme. Birgitta Wolf’s memoires also state that she contributed to anthroposophist Erhart Bartsch’s release from a concentration camp through her friend Carl Langbehn, a lawyer. Bartsch has been described as an important link between the biodynamic movement and the green wing of the Nazis. He offered his services in conjunction with the SS plans for ‘aryan colonisation’ of occupied territories in Eastern Europe.
Birgitta Wolf’s husband was drafted at the outbreak of the Second World War and so she and their three children went to live in Garnau near Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria. In 1940 she published her first poems in a book entitled Gesegneter Alltag. Her fairytale book, Mutters Märchenwald: Eine Geschichte, was published in 1943. She also bore her fourth child to Albert Nestler but the couple were seeing less and less of each other and, after the war, their marriage eventually ended. Towards the end of the war Birgitta Wolf was working as a volunteer at a military hospital, located in a nearby hotel, and she housed refugees, deserters, and those who had lost their homes to bombs. During this time her daughter Carin fell ill with tuberculosis. For a brief period Birgitta Wolf also accommodated three Jewish women who had been in concentration camps. Birgitta Wolf had, in March 1945, successfully smuggled herself – supplied with a letter of protection from Göring – into the Dachau concentration camp in order to meet a relative by marriage and to give her food and clothing. By doing so Birgitta Wolf not only helped her relative, who survived the last weeks until the camp was freed, but it also contributed to Birgitta Wolf being favourably treated by the American authorities following the end of the war.
Birgitta Wolf met the artist Julius Wolf shortly before the war ended during a skiing competition for patients at a Grainau hospital. Following the dissolution of her marriage to Albert Nestler she married Julius Wolf in 1948. Once the war ended Birgitta Wolf began increasingly to engage with homeless teenagers and convicts in Western Germany and eventually in Sweden and elsewhere internationally. People from these groups found sanctuary at her home where she would house them for free. She corresponded with and visited convicts in prisons in West Germany and subsequently also in Sweden and globally. Her archive contains tens of thousands of letters from convicts and she quickly became known as “the angel of the convicts”. In order to give them a public voice she collected manuscripts, poems, and sayings which she published as a book in 1963 entitled Die Vierte Kaste. In 1968 she also published a book in Swedish, called Det stulna livet: brev från fångar.
Birgitta Wolf became critical of prisons as behavioural institutions as a result of her experiences with young convicts. She, in contrast, championed preventative policies as a means of dealing with criminality and believed that a system of “consequences and measures” should replace the current punishment system. She played a very active part in German discussions of criminal policy and collaborated with politicians and lawyers, including the likes of Fritz Bauer, who was the state prosecutor of Hessen. At the same time she also organised various different youth groups.
Birgitta Wolf was invited to speak in several European countries and in the USA. She was also involved in setting up Riksförbundet för kriminalvårdens humanisering (the national association to humanise correctional treatment) in Sweden and the action committee for criminal justice and penalty enforcement reforms in West Germany. In 1969 she and her friend and lawyer Marianne Kunisch founded the non-profit organisation Nothilfe Birgitta Wolf e.V in West Germany in support of convicts, offering initial funding to released prisoners, and supporting reform efforts within the correctional system. During the 1970s Birgitta Wolf gained attention for going on hungerstrike in protest against the solitary confinement of the imprisoned members of the terrorist organisation Rote-Armee-Fraktion (RAF, the Red Army Faction), also known as the Baader-Meinhof group.
Birgitta Wolf became better-known in Sweden after appearing on the TV-programme Här är ditt liv in 1983. That same year she became involved in the campaign against the forced removal of children in Sweden. She wrote polemical articles and in 1986 she published the documentary book Fallet Alexander – ett beslagtaget barn.
Birgitta Wolf died in 2009 at her home in Murnau am Staffelsee in Upper Bavaria.